Scotland vs. France: 6 Players with a Point to Prove in Six Nations Clash

Danny Coyle@dannyjpcoyleFeatured ColumnistMarch 6, 2014

Scotland vs. France: 6 Players with a Point to Prove in Six Nations Clash

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    The fourth installment of a gripping Six Nations sees Scotland go in search of their first win over France in eight years.

    Back in 2006 they ran out 20-16 winners over Les Bleus at Murrayfield, but according to ESPN Scrum’s Statsguru, this recent run signifies their longest stretch of defeats to France since they first locked horns in 1910.

    So you could say a win for the Scots is long overdue. Their enigmatic coach Scott Johnson saw his side win a nail-biter against Italy, but instead of sticking with a victorious line-up, he shuffled his deck once again.

    Back comes Kelly Brown into the back row and as captain, having been dumped from the Matchday 23 altogether following defeat to Ireland. There are other changes in the pack that make a little more sense with an under-the weather Ryan Wilson dropping to the bench to make way for Dave Denton’s return.

    For France, injury has now claimed Yannick Nyanga as well as fellow flanker Thierry Dusautoir, but after their abject showing in Cardiff, Philippe Saint-Andre has swung the axe with seven changes.

    It throws this contest—to be played on undoubtedly the tournament’s worst surface—wide open.

    Here are three men from each side with the most to prove.

1. Kelly Brown

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    Kelly Brown finds himself back in Scott Johnson’s favour and back as captain for the visit of France.

    Johnson explained the selection by reasoning that Brown was more suited to France who play more "above the ground," which is as unfathomable a point as much of his selection policy in this championship.

    We will presume for now that he does not expect the French back row to begin levitating at any point.

    So, Brown is back, and he needs a big game not to prove the media wrong, but to show Johnson it was a poor choice to drop him for Chris Fusaro in the first place.

2. Alex Dunbar

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    Alex Dunbar showed against Italy that it is not beyond the wit of Scottish three-quarters to run coruscating lines and get round the opposition defence.

    His brace of tries were like rainbows arcing through the dull, grey clouds of doom threatening to suffocate Scottish rugby this winter.

    But where he was against the novice Michele Campagnaro in Rome, he faces an altogether different proposition in the bowling ball-like shape of France’s Mathieu Bastareaud.

    With no Louis Picamoles, Yannick Nyanga or Wesley Fofana in the side, France will look to the Toulon wrecking ball as one of their principle carriers and line-breakers.

    It will take a giant defensive performance from Dunbar to stop Bastareaud in his tracks. If he can do that and stay in one piece, he has the pace and guile to get past his man with ball in hand.

    Scotland just need to give it to him.

3. Dave Denton

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    Dave Denton was the surprise omission from Scotland’s starting line-up in Rome, having been their best ball carrier in the first two rounds.

    He is back at No. 8 after Ryan Wilson’s illness and Johnnie Beattie’s shift to No. 6. And there will be no Louis Picamoles to stop him this weekend.

    The Toulouse man has been put on the naughty step by his coach for his petulant reaction to his yellow card in Cardiff, leaving Denton as the only bruising, bulldozing No. 8 on show.

    Much like Brown, this is an opportunity for Denton to prove his interim coach was wrong to stand him down.

4. Sebastian Vahaamahina

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    The big second row from Perpignan finds himself in the unfamiliar waters of the back row as part of sweeping changes in the French pack.

    At 6'7" and close to 19 stones, it will be a challenge for Sebastian Vahaamahina, a player more accustomed to doing his work in the boiler house, to prove he can hack it at the top level against a vastly more experienced loose-forward trio.

    This selection is Saint-Andre’s biggest gamble.

5. Maxime Machenaud

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    With just seven starts in a 14-cap career, Maxime Machenaud is another player with limited experience at this level, but he has been thrust into the starting No. 9 jersey with Jean-Marc Doussain relegated to the bench.

    Machenaud will, in all likelihood, shoulder much of the goal-kicking responsibility should it be deemed too much for his young half-back partner Jules Plisson.

    We saw in Round 2 that a kicker of Owen Farrell’s ability found the worm-infested Murrayfield turf a tough surface to kick from, so the pressure is on the 24-year-old to nail his goals, marshal a make-shift pack of forwards and supply his back line with quality possession.

    No pressure, Max.

6. Maxime Mermoz

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    There are plenty of nations who would love France’s problem of deciding between Wesely Fofana and Maxime Mermoz at inside centre.

    While Fofana is arguably the best No. 12 in the business, Mermoz is not far behind him, and there is a case to say the two should be paired in midfield.

    It would certainly add a little more brain than the brawn of Mathieu Bastareaud. As it is, Fofana’s broken rib affords Mermoz the chance to line up alongside his Toulon club mate.

    These are big boots to fill. Mermoz was highy rated coming through the Toulouse academy, but had to move on to step out from the shadow of Yannick Jauzion.

    Now 27, the former Toulouse and Perpignan man needs to show that talent hasn’t faded thanks to a coach who has only started him six times.